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GCHQ facing ‘unique challenges’ of rapid technological change

Image credit: GCHQ

Rapid changes in technology are posing ‘unique challenges’ to the security services which will face ‘enormous complexity’ in the future, the boss of GCHQ has said.

Speaking 100 years since the UK’s Intelligence, Security and Cyber agency was formed, director Jeremy Fleming described society as being in a “period of accelerated change” with technological advances leaving the spy agency needing to alter the way it works.

GCHQ, which rarely speaks publicly about its work although has attempted to become less secretive in recent years, is marking its centenary with a series of events – one of which includes an exhibition at the Science Museum in London called ‘Top Secret: From ciphers to cyber security’.

During his speech, Fleming drew on GCHQ’s history of code-breaking successes over the past century and on the intelligence agency’s continued relevance in a world of growing information and technology.

“For GCHQ, it has been a century of shortening wars, saving lives and giving the UK a technical edge,” Fleming said, in remarks released to mark the agency’s centenary.

“I can't predict what GCHQ will look like 100 years from now. Who we are has been shaped by the changing threats and technology around us. In the future, we will continue to face enormous complexity, but also enormous opportunity.”

Fleming’s comments came as the agency revealed the existence of five locations where decoding and eavesdropping took place during the Second World War. These included Abbots Cliff House in Kent, where dozens of young German-speaking female linguists were stationed, listening into German radio messages.

“We’re living through a period of accelerated change in terms of technology: that comes with huge advantages and unique challenges for society. It means the way we work is changing,” Fleming said.

“Throughout our history, we have always tackled developments in communications to stay one step ahead,” he continued. “We have always risen to the challenge that change brings.”

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has thanked GCHQ for its services, saying in a statement: “GCHQ has been home to some of the brightest people in the country who quietly, and without fanfare, work day and night to keep us safe.”

First named the Government Code & Cypher School, the organisation was founded on 1 November 1919 with the merger of naval and military signals intelligence units that had demonstrated the value of code-breaking and eavesdropping during the First World War.

During the Second World War, personnel moved to Bletchley Park where they decrypted German messages, most famously by breaking the Enigma code.

The agency’s best-known former member of staff is Alan Turing, the wartime code-breaker and pioneer of computer science who had a “fearless approach to daunting problems".

Turing, who is to appear on the Bank of England’s next £50 note when it enters circulation by end of 2021, played a pivotal role at Bletchley Park in breaking the code which is said to have helped to shorten the length of the Second World War by years, saving millions of lives.

GCHQ regards his technical innovations as “ahead of their time” and they still inform its work today.

Working alongside MI5 and MI6, over the years GCHQ has looked to tackle serious cyber, terrorist, criminal and state threats and attacks, including investigating the Novichok poisoning in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in March 2018.

GCHQ also helped foil 23 attacks against the nation in the last four years and over 2017/18 it helped disrupt terrorist operations in at least four European countries.

Furthermore, the agency helped to arrest prolific child sex abusers Matthew Falder and James Alexander and prevented about £1.5bn of tax evasion between 2018-2019. The agency has also raised over £1.4m for charity over the last decade.

“Our centenary is a chance to celebrate those achievements and to thank those men and women who have given themselves to this work. But it is also a chance to look forward,” Fleming said.

He also added that although hugely different to the organisation that began back in 1919, there was “much that is recognisable in our DNA”.

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